I was told there is a honeymoon phase when one starts traveling to Ethiopia. It is viewed as a mecca of sorts within coffee travels—the widely accepted birthplace of Coffea Arabica, with the oldest history of coffee growing and drinking we know.
Dogwood has been buying coffee from Ethiopia for years, but without much consistency and with vague knowledge of where our coffees really came from. I felt a certain disconnect with Ethiopia, as I often have in the past with any of the places we buy coffee from but had yet to visit. Of course, on the first visit to any new country there’s a backwards moment when I immediately feel even more disconnected and overwhelmed with all there is to learn. Due to some unfortunate circumstances, I got thrown into my trip in a peculiar way that forced me to bypass the honeymoon and really grip on to the difficulties of the country with regards to poverty, politics and the complexities of the coffee sector. Until Ethiopia, I’m not sure I’d yet traveled to a coffee growing place where I experienced so much enchantment with the actual process of the coffee and all that surrounds it. For example, in Latin America, I feel more and more connected to the people with every visit and every new or returning coffee. In Indonesia I marveled at the history and tradition of various groups of people. In Ethiopia I thought about both of these things but all in the context of coffee. Maybe it’s the history of coffee there, maybe it’s because coffee truly belongs in Ethiopia. I don’t know.
Coffee comes from some of the most beautiful and interesting places in the world, but these are also some of the poorest and most corrupt. In every place I’ve traveled, and Ethiopia is no exception, I worry about the imbalance coffee can create, the non-nutritive aspects of the export crop, the position of coffee pickers or small producers on the chain, and the poverty that is found with coffee everywhere. I’m continuously humbled by the travel I do for Dogwood and the perspective and understanding it gives me on the whole process. With the right support, coffee growing can be transformative, but it’s only a part of what is needed to change lives in these countries. I hope that the way we approach coffee connects and brings an awareness of these places to our process and our customers—even though we are at least a world away.
The flavor of Ethiopia
Why do Ethiopian coffees taste so damn good?
Even before this trip, one of the aspects of Ethiopian coffee that blows me away is the kind of quality and flavor profile that can be achieved from very “normal” coffee grown in Ethiopia. Other origins agonize over certain varieties and miniscule microclimates to pull out distinct floral, effervescent characterstics, while Ethiopian coffees inherently have these kinds of flavors. In Ethiopia, we don’t see the kind of sorting, methodical planting and pruning that exists in many of the farms we buy from in Central America. All kinds of shades and shapes of cherry are being dumped into the hopper of a wet mill—and they come from hundreds of different small producers in the area.
As with any coffee, the wild and delicious flavors we attribute to Ethiopian coffee are derived from a number of factors but in large part can be tied to the “heirloom” varieties that make up most of the coffee. There are hundreds of unnamed coffee varieties in Ethiopia and many that have been identified, but the point is that they have these distinct flavor characteristics that are sought after without necessarily being cultivated by humans. Additionally, some of the most devastating diseases and weaknesses in coffee plants found in other countries are less prominent problems in Ethiopia. Coffee is not a native plant to most of the areas of the world where it is grown. When humans began to introduce the coffee plant to other countries, there was a significant lack of diversity in the varieties that made it around the world. The consequence of this is that as coffee became commercialized over the past couple hundred years, the genetic makeup weakened and made these common cultivars more susceptible to disease, suffer from low cup quality, low production etc. The genetic diversity of coffee in Ethiopia is a strength that researchers are looking to as a possibility to help strengthen the cultivars humans have managed to weaken over time. This is not a concept or problem exclusive to the coffee industry—many areas of agriculture battle issues related to dwindling genetic diversity.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to volunteer at and thus attend the SCAA Symposium. There were many areas of discussion, but genetics was certainly a prominent topic. This lecture by Aaron Davis I thought was particularly interesting and was also presented in a more understandable and global way—less specifically science-y than some of the other lectures. He talks about the narrow range of material we've been using to strengthen the commercial coffee plant, and how wild varieties and even other coffee species could be beneficial inputs and part of the solution. Here’s the video:
Coffee culture in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is a place of ancient coffee tradition. There is a deep-rooted historic connection to coffee that pervades the modern culture. Today, Ethiopia drinks around half of the country’s production, which is unusual for many export countries. The coffee ceremony is certainly one of the activities that pulled me back in time and gave me a unique appreciation for the historic aspects of the beverage. The time of the day or environment doesn’t matter, the ceremony is common and part of the process that can really take place at anytime. Green coffee is roasted in a flat pan (usually to a black, smokey crisp…) ground by hand and brewed in a traditional pot called a Jebena. The coffee is served in small cups and sometimes with popcorn on the side! I had a lot of less-than-delicious cups of coffee this way during my trip. I eventually sipped a cup that tasted pretty good, even sans sugar, at the Suke Quto washing station in Shakiso, but I think they were a little more in tune with buyers’ roast profile preferences. In any case, the process is meaningful and a way to connect to the deeply engrained culture of coffee in Ethiopia.
In the States, we’ve managed to slow ourselves down as our coffee drinking culture shifts. I think the function of the café is returning to what it once was—a place of community where we spend a little more time. We’re focusing more on the process of what we’re doing when we prepare coffee, and part of that means we need to bring the people we’re making coffee for into the activity. It’s actually fun to go to a café and see someone make a coffee for you right after you order—the time forces a moment of thought and a connection to the process. I’d like to think we can take a hint from the way they prepare and drink coffee in Ethiopia—think more about what we’re doing, what we’re drinking. Also, serving popcorn with coffee is a pretty magical idea.
This trip was mostly spent in the southern part of Ethiopia, from where most of Dogwood’s past offerings have come. We spent much of our time around Yirga Cheffe—an area that produces some of our favorite coffees and the namesake of my dog, Yirgy (long-time Dogwood Coffee employee.)
We’ll be releasing several offerings from the south over the next couple of months with more info to come on some of the specific coffees.
Our first release is from the Reko washing station in Kochere, named for the nearby mountain and town. We are offering this coffee for the second year—last year it was one of our favorites so we’re happy it shines again this harvest. The Reko station collects from about 1500 small landholders in the area through 15 collection stations. This is a heavy floral coffee with sweet, mild melon notes and a tart lemon citrus pop in the aftertaste. We’ll be adding this coffee to the web with a single origin espresso roast profile soon, which is sure to blow your mind and palate. Buy Reko in our web store.
Sleepy parting shot of my favorite dog in Ethiopia so far. Guji Zone, Odo Shakiso.